During a year in which institutional reckonings within the art world have come thick and fast, it makes sense that the Tate Britain, one of the four prominent museums in the Tate network in the UK, is facing one of its own. Back in August, a petition drew attention to the artwork adorning the walls of the museum’s restaurant, which is menacingly entitled The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats. The mural, which was commissioned by the Tate Britain’s director in 1927 and completed by the artist Rex Whistler, depicts Black children being chased and ensnared and caricatures of Chinese people. Now, because of the controversy that the mural has generated, The Art Newspaper is reporting that the restaurant is likely to never reopen, even after the pandemic decelerates.
“We are taking this time to consult internally and externally on the future of the room and the mural, and we will keep the public informed of future plans,” a spokesperson for the Tate Britain told The Art Newspaper, which also stated that the aforementioned consultation is expected to begin in 2021. When the Instagram callout and Change.org petition drew fresh attention to the racist nature of the mural, a Tate Britain spokesperson was quick to try and subdue the backlash. “Having been commissioned for the restaurant walls in 1927, the mural was one of the artist’s most significant works and is part of a Grade I-listed historic interior,” the spokesperson told the Guardian in August. This Grade I listing also means that the museum can’t easily take the mural down, because they have a duty solidified by the heritage listing to preserve and protect it. “But,” the spokesperson continued at the time, “it is important to acknowledge the presence of offensive and unacceptable content and its relationship to racist and imperialist attitudes in the 1920s and today.”
Now, however, it seems that the Tate Britain’s Ethics Committee is advising that the restaurant, which has already been shut down until at least the fall of 2021, should never reopen. Not only is the mural indisputably offensive, the committee members agreed, but “the offense is compounded by the use of the room as a restaurant.” Of course, because there happens to be no other site in the Tate Britain’s building that would be suitable for the construction of a different restaurant, this means that the museum will be likely to lose one of its only solid revenue streams, and will not be able to provide employment for the restaurant staff. On top of this, the Tate has already faced severe criticism this year for laying off hundreds of employees across from different departments. If the Tate Britain’s restaurant is truly no more, this will lead to further job losses. Ultimately, it’s an illustration of how damaging racist artwork can be almost 100 years after it was commissioned: livelihoods and institutional revenue will continue to be lost because of The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, not to mention the damage to the Tate Britain’s reputation.